October 30, 2017

Awesome Autumn: Orcas and Humpback Whales enjoy the island fall weather with us

Humpback Whale

[Naturalist Erick, Friday 10/27/17, M/V Sea Lion, 12:00]

All of western Washington’s coastline has jumped headlong into fall this week. We have been basking in the warm autumn sunshine and cool fall breezes that mark some of the best days for wildlife watching in San Juan Islands.

Migration Station

On Friday, we started our adventure by traveling north. Autumn means southward migration for both birds and some whale species. The past few weeks we have been seeing Humpback Whales frequently in the deeper straits surrounding our archipelago and we thought we may be able to find them this day. The Salish Sea is one of the last quiet pitstops these giants make before spending weeks in open water as they head towards various breeding areas down south in warmer waters. We and the great folks aboard M/V Sea Lion searched in Spieden Channel and then in the northern parts of Haro Strait. Off in the distance we spotted what appeared to be a singular Humpback Whale blow! It was right off the shore of Henry Island and headed towards us. We slowly approached and soon found that we were wrong, it was an Orca!

Lone Transient Orca, Uncommon but not strange

This is pretty rare but also completely normal. Transient Orcas (the ecotype of orca that live in the North Pacific and feed on marine mammals) usually travel in family groupings (pods) like all orcas but occasionally we come across lone, male orcas. This male, T049C, has been spotted many times in past few months around the islands. These lone males usually will travel for long periods of time by themselves being entirely self-sufficient and will intermittently travel and hunt with another family in order to be more successful in hunting and more importantly to mate. We watched this adult male orca travel from Battleship Island to Spieden Island. He was taking longer more majestic dives that made every time he surfaced that much more spectacular.

Family time: the T002C Transient Orca pod

We left him to it and headed west to search for some other cetaceans! Out in the middle of Haro Strait we found a whole group of orcas. These were also Transient Orcas (mammal-eating) and a whole family of them! These orcas were the T002C’s. This is a family of 4 orcas and like all orca families it is lead by a matriarch, T002C herself, and the other three members are her offspring. T002C1 is a 15-year-old male who is sprouting. “Sprouting” is the male orca equivalent of puberty, and he will be full grown around 21 years old. T002C2 is 12 years old and pretty unique in the Orca world. He is pretty small for his size and has scoliosis. Footage and photos taken of him from above show a severely twisted spine. He can’t swim as fast as his family members and is often excluded from hunts, but all his family members have worked hard to keep him alive. This behavior is pretty uncommon in most species and perhaps speaks to the intelligence of orcas and the ease at which they can find food and outwit any potential threats. The final member of the family is T002C3, and is only 6 years old. This is still pretty young for an orca but it is growing fast and is already helping a little with her brother and hunting. We watched this family zig-zag through Haro Strait for a while before we decided to take a tour around some of the other islands.


We went and looked at the cliffs on Stuart Island and then passed through the skinny channel of Johns Pass. We next stopped at Spieden Island to see a few perched Bald Eagles. Spieden Island hosts several mated pairs of Bald Eagles that spend their whole year there. After we watched a few of them fly off we continued down the forested coastline of the northern side of Spieden Island and saw a bunch of Harbor Seals. Some were resting on the sunny rocks, trying to do their best impressions of large, blubbery logs, while there were a bunch of younger seals playing in the waters right next to shore.

Humpback Whales

We started to head back towards Friday Harbor, but soon we saw some more blows! It was two Humpback Whales swimming next to Limestone Point on San Juan Island. This was the type of whale were originally set out to find and here they were. Both were slowly travelling south and going on feeding dives. These deeper dives bring their flukes up in a slow yet dramatic fashion. I don’t know what it is a bout it, but out of all the cool things marine mammals do for some reason seeing Humpback Whales fluke up takes everyone’s breaths away.

One more thing

After seeing all of that, we even took some time to stop and watch a Steller Sea Lion tearing apart of fish. These big pinnipeds spend their winters here and this one had just caught a large fish. Since they lack thumbs and table manners they eat their food by slinging it from side to side until small strips come off that are easier to eat. It is pretty hilarious to watch and the seagulls seem to enjoy it too.


Whale folks, I don’t think we could have fit much more into that day.


Until next time,


Naturalist Erick

San Juan Safaris